We in the Evangelical Lutheran Synod inherited an unbroken and rich legacy of liturgy and hymns that traces back to the Lutheran Reformation in Germany and Norway, back to the medieval and early Christian church, and even into the Old Testament. We sing the words of Moses, David, Mary, Simeon, Ambrose, Luther, Gerhardt, Kingo, Koren, and many more.
Norwegian immigrants brought with them hymnbooks with a Scandinavian flavor of Lutheranism, with hymns like: On My Heart; He That Believes and Is Baptized; Behold a Host; Built on the Rock; and Like the Golden Sun Ascending. Hymnwriters like Thomas Kingo, Dorothe Engelbretsdatter, and Hans Adolf Brorson were well loved. Like all Lutherans, they also embraced hymns of early German Lutherans such as Martin Luther, Nicolaus Selnecker, Paul Speratus, and Paul Gerhardt.
The truths of our hymns and liturgy go beyond tradition or ethnic heritage. Lutherans in Africa, Asia, Australia, and South America also sing many of these hymns, translated into their own languages, sometimes with other music and sometimes with the same music we sing.
Our immigrant ancestors at first sang their hymns in Norwegian or German or Swedish or Slovak, but eventually they needed hymns in English. They borrowed hymns from other traditions, particularly Presbyterian and Anglican, but they also wanted their rich doctrinal Lutheran hymns. An amazing amount of translation work was done in the early 1900s.
The Lutheran Hymnary (LHy) of 1913 was a tremendous effort to bring many of the familiar Norwegian and Danish hymns into English as well as the “Bugenhagen” Service (Rite One in ELH). It was produced by three Norwegian-American church bodies. We owe mange tusen takk (many thousand thanks) to translators like Carl Døving, George A. T. Rygh, Oluf H. Smeby, Harriet Reynolds Krauth Spaeth, and Peer Strømme. Now we can sing Ye Lands, to the Lord; Praise to Thee and Adoration; and Behold A Host in our own language.
The Lutheran Hymnal (TLH) of 1941 was produced by the Synodical Conference of North America (Missouri Synod, Wisconsin Synod, ELS, and Slovak Synod). From here we have the Common Service (Rite Two), Matins, and Vespers. It also included translations of more German and some Slovak hymns, plus I Pray Thee, Dear Lord Jesus, translated by Norman A. Madson.
These two hymnbooks carried forth the legacy that had already been familiar in our synod for many years. The Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary (ELH) is the continuation of these two previous hymnbooks in common use in our synod. ELH came about in the 1990s when our synod directed the worship committee to study the possibility of producing a hymnbook for our use after expressing interest several times in previous decades. The “Bugenhagen” and Common Service liturgies are familiar with some additional liturgical forms and newer music. The Office of Prime and Compline have become popular devotional forms for meetings. (The Beatitudes from Matthew 5 have become much more familiar to us through the Office of Prime.)
Many of the hymns are sung and recognized by Lutherans around the world with the addition of our Scandinavian heritage and some newer texts and music from Lutherans in America. The poetry reflects a variety of times when hymns were written and translated: ancient Latin chants, Reformation chorales, English metrical psalms, American Lutheran hymns from the last 50 years. We can sing Savior of the Nations, Come; A Mighty Fortress; Built on the Rock; Thy Strong Word; and The Tree of Life, spanning 1700 years of Christian hymnody from Latin, German, Scandinavian, and American heritage. We can sing or read the psalms with Moses and David and Solomon, taking us back into the Old Testament. These are things the worship committee gathered from the treasury of our heritage that is shared by Christians of all times and all places.
The worship committee also recognizes the hymnbook as an instrument for personal and home devotions. For that reason, as many hymn stanzas as possible were included. Prime and Compline (ELH p. 108 and 128) also suit this purpose. The Small Catechism (ELH p. 31) is included and can be used for devotion, meditation, and instruction. The Augsburg Confession (ELH p. 7) is a strong statement to review our Christian faith and our Lutheran doctrine. The hymnbook is a book of doctrine, faith, and devotion.
While ELH certainly reflects our unique heritage, it has a broad enough scope that it can be used by Lutherans in many different places. It is a wondrous blessing and encouragement to hear congregations singing the truths of Scripture in hymns and liturgy, sometimes in four-part harmony, sometimes even a cappella. These words and this music are a blessed heritage that we treasure and will pass on to the coming generations.
How did this all come about?
The synod asked the worship committee to investigate producing our own hymnbook, but they allocated no money. So the committee asked people to give a donation to “sponsor a page” in honor or memory of loved ones, etc. This gave us our initial start.
The committee met with no budget. The synod provided travel costs, lodging, and some other expenses, which were minimal. We like to joke that the hymnary was built on “apples and chicken salad.” We often met at Prof. Dennis Marzolf’s home and had chicken salad for lunch, and Pastor Harry Bartels ate an apple faithfully every day. The other person of the three-member committee was Mark DeGarmeaux.
Computers were just coming into use. Software was expensive. Email was not common. The process would be very different today. We sent paper copies and floppy disks through the mail to each other and to the publisher in four different states. We did our best with the time and technology while also performing our other full-time duties. Everything went through the synod’s doctrine committee for review. In the end, the synod helped to fund the printing of the book.
No perfect hymnbook
Sometimes I joke with people that in my office, I have a hymnbook that has no mistakes in it. We received a mock-up of ELH to know what the cover and the book would look like. All the inside pages are blank. There are no mistakes in that copy!
Hymnbooks can often be controversial. They sometimes lead to church mergers. They sometimes lead to church splits. Sometimes they have a short life, sometimes very long. Kingo’s hymnbook was used in parts of Denmark for 250 years. Landstad’s hymnbook was used in Norway (with some revisions) for over 100 years. We are thankful the ELH has been well received in our synod and even used in some places outside our synod. Some purchase it for their choirs to use. The Bach and Lindeman hymn settings, the many stanzas, and the Scandinavian hymns all give something that is not as common in other Lutheran hymnbooks today. We are glad to have them all.
We are blessed with a rich heritage of theology and music, and we pray that God will continue to use it to bless our people today and in generations to come.
Professor Mark DeGarmeaux